What can marketers learn from cults?

Dr Arthur Deikman’s book on cult behaviour, The Wrong Way Home, focused heavily on what he called ‘Mystical Psychosis’: a disturbing trend for affluent, educated and otherwise perfectly normal people who fall into some pretty questionable frameworks of belief – i.e: cults.

Humanity has evolved to love groups. We’ve discussed this before in other Andzen articles discussing the lessons Seth Godin provided in his book Tribes – groups were required to take down mammoths or pick enough berries. Humans simply can’t exist as solitary creatures. Cults then, in a sense, are simply ‘tribes’ taken to their next logical extreme. This makes them incredibly effective.

While we might all hold the opinion that our mental defences are watertight, too often humanity finds itself wearing nothing but a hessian sack in Jonestown, squatting around a Beatles record in a Manson-esque quasi-commune, or pitching a tent in front of an Apple store three days before the next iPhone is released.

On the other side of the coin, cult behaviour can be a force for good. The word ‘cult’ comes from the Latin ‘colō’, meaning to worship, revere, cultivate or honor. It’s not inherently sinister. There are countless charitable religions around the world, AA meetings can hardly be said to cause anyone any harm, and Harry Potter was actually a pretty good series. While ‘cult’ is literally and figuratively a four-letter word in today’s lexicon, cults often give members a deep and rewarding sense of belonging, purpose and truth. And for many, this far outweighs their negative sides.

It also makes the cult mentality incredibly useful. Everything from Communism, the Kardashians, to social media benefits from cult mentality in some way or another.   

So what is it then, that makes a cult a cult? Is a classroom a cult? A company? Coca-Cola? And more importantly, what lessons can we learn from them?

Cults, in Deikman’s analysis, generally follow a similar pattern. They share the same traits, which make them effective in generating a feeling of loyalty with their followers.

  • Compliance, or the tendency to avoid dissent,
  • A leader figure, and
  • The tendency to devalue outsiders.

Seems a bit authoritarian. And it is. But only in the extreme. Consider Apple.


A leader figure

The tendency to devalue outsiders

While these are all deliberately extreme examples, one cannot deny that Apple, (at the time of writing, the richest company in the world) mimics cult behaviours. Although in a very inoffensive, watered-down way. Even so – they’re so effective at it, certain unfortunate people have been known to camp in front of Apples stores for 8 days in advance of the launch of a new product.

As marketers, this is the dream – albeit perhaps a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario. So what can we learn from this?

Generate compliance?

Deikman used the term ‘Compliance’ to describe how those suffering under mind-melting regimes were made to be willing to do what they were told to. But ‘cults’ are not always mind-melting regimes.

Rather than ‘compliance’, a better word for this phenomenon might be ‘loyalty’. One can be loyal to a cult – but also loyal to a friend. Even more so, loyal to a particular brand.

In ecommerce, loyalty to your brand is extremely important. And loyalty comes from a feeling of belonging to something. You need to create a lifestyle surrounding your brand. You need to sell your product less like a product to be used, but as a symbol of identity. And you need to show your customers that you care.

Helping to grow loyalty, and trust, in your brand is an incredibly important step towards generating repeat purchases, referrals and boosting Customer Lifetime Value.

Be a leader?

If you want to communicate with your customers, the  best way to do so is by way of example.

Many successful brands (and cults) have a strong leader figure. Steve Jobs. Elon Musk. Colonel Sanders. Richard Branson. These people lived and breathed their brand values and mission statements. Steve Jobs lived his life in monk-like minimalism. Colonel Sanders kept his homely, family vibes well into his success. Richard Branson shows off his companies’ high standard of customer service by treating his employees with the utmost care.

Teach by example. Whatever you’re selling. Act like you want your customers to feel when they buy and use your product.

Devalue outsiders?

Devaluing people simply because they don’t use your product is an act of narcissism and immense small-mindedness. We do not advocate anyone do this. But making a change in an industry – disrupting it, revolutionising it, evolving it, et al – is another thing entirely.

This is not to say you need to reinvent the wheel, lightbulb, of find a better way to slice bread. Rather, you need to inspire people to change for the better. People who truly believe in their brand values don’t devalue outsiders – they motivate them to incorporate these values in their own lives. Don’t devalue outsiders, bring them into your fray by making your product invaluable.

Hi, I’m Jackson; Andzen's Digital Content Producer. I write copy for our client businesses - whether it be email campaigns, blog posts, social media posts or something new. It's my job to write stuff that converts, boosts engagement and pushes brands to new heights. In my spare time, I enjoy piano, reading books, and writing short stories.

Enquire now

Give us a call or fill in the form below and we will contact you as soon as possible.

Need help

  • Drop your details in below and one of our strategists will get in touch.